Round One

DESPITE THE HEAT MIRAGES BLURRING THE VIEW through his sniper scope, LCpl. James L. O’neill could see movement five hundred meters away among the brush and hootches of Dong Huan. The hamlet sat on the far bank of the tributary the Marines were approaching, and O’neill turned to Lieutenant Boyle, the 1st Platoon commander in H BLT 2/4, to report, “Sir, I think we got a whole bunch of gooks in front of us.”

“Take a look again.”

Lance Corporal O’neill, a sniper, brought his scope-mounted, bolt-action rifle back to his shoulder. He was sitting at the edge of a paddy east of the two standing structures of what was marked as Bac Vong on their maps. He looked at the lieutenant again. “Hey, I’m watchin’ a lot of movement out there. I don’t know if it’s ours or theirs. All I see is movement.”

“Shoot one of ’Em.”

“Sir, what if it’s one of ours?”

“We don’t have anybody out there. Just shoot one.”

O’neill had reason to hesitate: The other side of the tributary belonged to the ARVN. Hotel One’s patrol had departed the company patrol base, Objective Delta, early that morning, Tuesday, 30 April 1968, with the mission of investigating the NVA positions that had fired on a routine, predawn patrol by river patrol craft of TF Clearwater. From Objective Delta, Hotel Company could hear the NVA automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, and see the red .50-caliber tracers streaming back from the patrol boat. The NVA seemed to have been in the vicinity of Dong Huan, which was on the south bank of a Bo Dieu tributary that sliced east to west before curving north. Lieutenant Boyle’s orders had been to move south the thirteen hundred meters between Objective Delta and Bac Vong, which sat on the north side of the tributary five hundred meters above Dong Huan. The thin, head-high tributary between Bac Vong defined the western edge of BLT 2/4’s TAOR. However, the ARVN forces responsible for the opposite side had been committed the afternoon before to the Route 1 battle.

Screw it, O’neill thought as he assumed his prone firing position. If it is the ARVN, I’ll just swear up and down somebody else did it.…

Lance Corporal O’neill, twenty, had chambered a 7.62mm match round in his Remington Model 700, and now, helmet off, he focused through the scope on a shirtless soldier who was unknowingly facing the cross hairs as he walked down a trail. There were too many trees for a clean shot. O’neill waited until the man sat down in a waistdeep spiderhole. He fired. The recoil took his eye off the target, as did the well-oiled maneuver of bringing the bolt back and chambering a new round. O’neill snapped his focus back to the trail and scanned down it until he found the hole just off to the left of it. The man was leaning back in the hole. It was unclear if he’d been hit, so O’neill squeezed off a second shot. When he reacquired the target, there was no doubt about his marksmanship: The man was missing half of his head.

It was approximately 0810. Lieutenant Boyle, a capable, ruddy-faced young man who’d had Hotel One for three weeks, called up his squad leaders. He and his platoon sergeant, SSgt. Richard A. Kelleher, explained that they were to lay down a base of fire from their position east of Bac Vong while Cpl. James A. Summey’s squad maneuvered to a small footbridge that crossed the blueline into Dong Huan. Summey’s squad made it to the creek’s edge before surprising five soldiers wearing green fatigues and pith helmets, and carrying AK-47s. They were clearly North Vietnamese regulars. The NVA were on the opposite bank and were rushing for cover, but the squad dropped three of them. The NVA returned fire and Boyle pulled the squad back, then requested that their artillery spotter call for supporting fire as the exchange of automatic weapons fire intensified.

Hotel Company had established an observation post on the roof of a battle-scarred, two-story concrete farmhouse in the deserted hamlet designated Objective Delta. Captain Williams was up top with a pair of binoculars, watching Hotel One’s progress. He could also see the routine river traffic to the south on the Bo Dieu River. A pair of Navy utility landing craft (LCUs) proceeded downriver with several patrol boats. The patrol boats, which answered to the call sign Traffic Cop, placed .30-and .50-caliber machine-gun fire into Dong Huan, already shuddering under the barrage of 105mm artillery fire being brought to bear. The patrol boats added their 81mm mortars to the onslaught.

The NVA, who were well entrenched, opened up on Traffic Cop and the passing LCUs. Captain Williams was still watching through his binos when a Soviet-made 57mm recoilless rifle suddenly opened fire from Dong Huan—it was a five-hundred-meter shot to the Bo Dieu River—and one of the LCUs shook as it took two or three broadside hits. As the LCUs U-turned and headed for Dong Ha with casualties aboard, Williams dropped down the ladder from the tarp-shaded observation post (OP) and radioed battalion. The word from Dixie Diner 6 was exactly what Williams expected: Hotel Company was to attack and seize Dong Huan.1

It was supposed to be Captain Williams’s last operation with Hotel Company. He had only a week remaining on his twelve-and-twenty, the twelve months and twenty days of a Marine’s tour in Vietnam. Williams had built a fine reputation. “The skipper was a by-the-book officer of exacting standards,” said a lieutenant of this thirty-year-old family man from Winona, Minnesota, “and he was also a gentleman, a sensitive man, a man who was capable of doing what was necessary to accomplish the mission, but not without a good deal of feeling and concern for his troops.”

Captain Williams was also incredibly brave. He and Captain Livingston of Echo Company had led the way during the assault on Vinh Quan Thuong and became battalion legends because of it. Bogged down under artillery and rocket fire, Williams jumped up with his entrenching tool still in hand and, along with the grease-gun-toting Livingston, personally led the final, reenergized charge into the enemy ville. They overran an NVA artillery spotter who was dying at his radio. The radio was still squawking. Williams’s Vietnamese scout said that the NVA at the other end was asking for a status report. Williams thought back to their recent arrival at Mai Xa Chanh West when Hanoi Hannah had welcomed the battalion and its commander by name, and had mocked the so-called Magnificent Bastards. Williams instructed his scout, “Get on that radio; I’ve got a message for the other end: ‘You have just been overrun by Hotel Company of the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines. Lieutenant Colonel Weise sends his regards.’”

Captain Williams’s assault on Dong Huan was going to be rough. An aerial observer was on station above the battlefield, and had already ordered one air strike on the hamlet. It was followed by firing runs from three helicopter gunships, and then another bomb run that claimed to have knocked out two 12.7mm machine guns. The Soviet-built 12.7mm was effective against both ground troops and aircraft, and the presence of such a weapon in Dong Huan was one of the factors that led Weise to later write:

I felt uneasy. Something big was happening.…Small enemy units and individuals often fired at river boats and “disappeared” before we could react. This time I had a feeling the enemy would not run.…Everything about the situation favored the enemy defenders. The approaches to Dong Huan offered no cover and very little concealment. Surrounded by open rice paddies, and separated from Bac Vong by an un-fordable stream, Dong Huan, itself, was hidden by dense hedgerows.

The enemy had chosen their position well. Given the enemy’s talent for engineering situations in which they were dug in and their opponents were in the open—the Marine response to the NVA recoilless rifle fire was obvious—Weise also had to be concerned with nearby Dai Do. The largest ville in the area, it was situated five hundred very, open meters west and southwest of Dong Huan. No NVA had been spotted in Dai Do, but if they were there they could bring long-range sniper and machine-gun fire to bear on any assault of Dong Huan.

Lieutenant Colonel Weise explained to Williams over the radio that he had secured permission from regiment to commit Foxtrot Company, the battalion reserve, to cover Dai Do. Foxtrot was to move out immediately aboard amtracs from Mai Xa Chanh East. The battalion’s attached tank platoon, which could muster just two M48 tanks, was also on the way. Weise explained that he, too, was going to be battlefield bound shortly (he would arrive about 1005) aboard a Navy LCM-6 Monitor gunboat, which would pick him up at Mai Xa Chanh West and bring him up the Bo Dieu with his command group. Weise later wrote:

I ordered Capt. Williams to assemble Hotel Company in Bac Vong.…Using the limited concealment afforded by the stream bank, Hotel Company would move north… to a fording point, cross the stream, and turn south to Dong Huan. Foxtrot Company, mounted on amtracs, would then cross the stream, move to the cemetery east of Dai Do, pour fire into Dai Do to silence [suspected] enemy weapons there, create a diversion for Hotel Company as it moved into its assault position, and protect Hotel’s right flank and rear during its assault. Foxtrot… would also be prepared to assault Dai Do.

From Objective Delta, Williams retraced Hotel One’s route to the vicinity of Bac Vong with his headquarters and mortar section, plus Hotel Three under SSgt. Ronald W. Taylor. Hotel Two, led by SSgt. Robert J. Ward, moved down from Objective Charlie to join Williams, as did SSgt. T. Garvin, who commanded the two tanks from A Company, 3d Tank Battalion, which presently arrived from the BLT CP. In addition, 1st Lt. C. W. Muter, commander of the BLT’s attached platoon from D Company, 3d Reconnaissance Battalion, also showed up. Muter and four of his recon Marines had been in the area on a relatively routine patrol unrelated to the fray they now joined.

The first order of business was to secure Bac Vong, which afforded a direct, vegetation-covered line of fire into Dong Huan. Since the blueline was a real tank obstacle, Captain Williams planned to deploy Garvin’s two tanks in Bac Vong and use their 90mm main guns and .50-caliber machine guns as a base of fire. Muter’s recon team would secure the tanks.

They reached Bac Vong, which proved empty, at about 1115. As the tanks and recon team deployed along the brushy bank, Williams instructed Staff Sergeant Ward to move upstream with Hotel Two to find a place to ford the stream. They reconned along seven hundred meters of the tributary before finding a relatively narrow and shallow spot across which a bamboo fishing screen had been rigged. A step in the wrong, muddy place would sink a combat-loaded Marine to his chin, but by leaning against the screen they were able to get across with weapons, ammunition, and radios held high.

Captain Williams fed Hotel Three across the stream behind Hotel Two, with Hotel One bringing up the rear. This channelized, single-file crossing (completed by about 1300) drew only sporadic fire from Dong Huan. The tanks and recon team in Bac Vong, however, were under heavy fire, and they responded in kind. Lieutenant Muter, talking on the radio, caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye, and he looked up from his map just as an NVA ran out of Dong Huan to the edge of the creek. The NVA had an RPG over his shoulder and took aim at the tank beside which Muter was kneeling. In the same instant, Muter saw Bergmann, one of his recon troops, carefully aiming his M16 at the NVA. Unlike most grunts, Bergmann avoided the temptation to start shooting from the hip, and instead stood in the classic Marine Corps firing stance with one elbow up and the other tucked under his weapon. Bergmann squeezed off his one, make-it-count shot in the same millisecond that the 90mm cannon on the tank roared its disapproval at the RPG-toting enemy soldier. The NVA disappeared from the face of the earth. Bergmann had been concentrating so hard that he had not heard the tank gun. All he knew was that his target had evaporated with one well-aimed squeeze of the trigger, and he held his M16 in front of him as he exclaimed in awe: “Jee-sus Christ!”

A pair of USMC F-4 Phantoms prepped Dong Huan as Hotel Company crossed the creek, and 1st Lt. Alexander F. “Scotty” Prescott IV, the company exec, helped spot for the aerial observer, who was up in an O-IE Birddog. It was a real aerial show, with the two low-flying pilots putting their bombs and napalm, better known as snake ’n* nape, right into the hamlet. How can anyone be alive in there? Prescott wondered. They’re getting plastered with napalm and five hundred pounders, man. They’re just getting the shit pounded out of them. Over the roar of the jets’ fire, Prescott could hear the sharp popping of AK-47s from within the village. Ballsy, he thought. These aren’t rice farmers. These are professional soldiers.

As one of the Phantoms pulled out of a run, a big napalm fireball spread over the ville even as the aerial observer called excitedly on the radio, “You’re takin’ fire! You’re takin’ fire!”

The pilot’s voice was strained by the g’s he was pulling as he skyrocketed up from his treetop-level bombing run, but he was sporting nonetheless: “Uhhh, uhhhh … I think that’s only fair.…”

Captain Williams left Lieutenant Prescott at the fording site with their gunnery sergeant, mortar section, and reserve platoon, while he moved to their line of departure and set up some four hundred meters north of Dong Huan with Staff Sergeants Ward (Hotel Two) and Taylor (Hotel Three) facing south. Taylor was on the left flank and Ward on the right, where Foxtrot Company was presently approaching. Foxtrot had just crossed over on amtracs, and was to take Dai Do under fire after deploying along its own LD,

Meanwhile, Williams had his 60mm mortars and M60 machine guns take Dong Huan under fire to keep the NVAs’ heads down. Between that barrage and the tree-shaking tank fire from across the creek, the NVA got off only a shot or two in return. In fact, some of the grunts catnapped behind the paddy dikes as the prep fires poured in. With the jets no longer on station, Williams put his artillery spotter, 2d Lt. Carl R. Gibson, from H/3/12, to good use. This was Gibson’s baptism of fire, but he did a well-trained job of raining 105mm and 155mm fire on Dong Huan, with a mix of high explosive (HE), white phosphorus, and smoke rounds. In addition, the Traffic Cop patrol boats and the Monitor command boat on the Bo Dieu fired thousands of .30-and .50-caliber machine-gun rounds, and 81mm mortar rounds by the dozen. The Monitor also pumped 20mm cannon fire into the increasingly smoky battlefield.

By 1330, Captain Williams was ready to assault Dong Huan. He spoke by radio with the new Foxtrot 6, Captain Butler, about the need for Foxtrot to hit Dai Do at the same time. Foxtrot’s Marines had not yet deployed from their amtracs when they suddenly came under RPG fire from Dai Do. Williams put his binos on the scene. Oh, my God, they’ve got the range on this guy, he thought, as he watched several RPGs ricochet off the amtracs.

There was a point beyond which Williams did not want to launch the attack, for it meant having to consolidate and conduct medevacs in the dark. He called Butler again and shouted, “Let’s get moving, we can’t keep sitting here!” But Foxtrot was not ready, and when Dixie Diner 6 called and pressed Williams to commence the attack, he answered, “Look, Foxtrot is taking hits. They don’t seem to be able to get off the dime and get moving!”

Williams finally felt sufficiently compelled to launch without Foxtrot. On his signal the tanks and recon team in Bac Vong increased their rate of fire into Dong Huan. Hotel Two and Three began the assault at a crawl across the naked paddies, but as HE and smoke continued to splash in, the NVA did not respond. The Marines got up on order, spread out into an assault line with about fifteen feet between each man, and pressed forward at a rapid walk. Williams lifted the supporting fires when they were within two hundred meters of the ville; when the NVA raised their heads from their holes they saw a line of eighty screaming, firing-from-the-hip Marines rushing at them from out of the smoke.

“When those Marines hit the ville,” Williams later wrote, “you couldn’t hold them back.” The attack “was so smooth that it looked like a rehearsed SDT [Schools Demonstration Troops] assault demo at Quantico.” Williams added that:

in fact, it had been rehearsed. During 2/4’s earlier operations along the Cua Viet River, our attacks had, on several occasions, lost momentum and gotten unnecessarily bogged down. Our Marines, trained from the first day of boot camp to look out for one another, were allowing their attachment for their buddies to jeopardize all of us. When one youngster would get hit, three more would stop their assault fire and forward movement and run over to assist their fallen buddy. This phenomenon was particularly troublesome in the earlier attacks on Vinh Quan Thuong and Lam Xuan East and Jim Livingston and I, along with some encouragement from [Weise], resolved to do something about it. During the lull in the action that occurred in April, we cordoned off an area in front of our perimeter at Mai Xa Chanh [West] and drilled our squads and platoons in live-fire assaults. We stressed the fact that in the attack, continued momentum is essential and once committed to the assault, nothing must stop them.

Williams added that when several Marines rushed to help a wounded buddy “part of that was just an excuse to get out of the fire, and it was killing us—literally—because once you lose fire superiority they gain it and you’re pinned down. I told them, ‘I don’t care if it’s your mother that goes down, you leave her lying there and you keep going.’”

That’s exactly what Hotel Company did at Dong Huan. Kills were made at eyeball-to-eyeball range. Lance Corporal Phil Donaghy of Hotel Two, under fire for the first time, was only four quick steps from that first hedgerow when an NVA suddenly rose halfway from his spiderhole in the vegetation. The man looked terrified. He was screaming. It sounded as though he was shouting the surrender call of chieu hoi, but he was still clutching his AK-47, and before Donaghy could think, he fired his M16 into the man. The entire squad seemed to zero in on him at that same instant, and the NVA was lifted backward out of his hole.

Captain Williams’s forward observer, Lieutenant Gibson, called in one fire mission too many just as Hotel Two and Three hit Dong Huan. Williams heard the artillery battery report “shot out” over Gibson’s radio, and he shouted at Gibson to adjust the next salvo farther into the ville. Williams grabbed his own radio then to urgently instruct Hotel Two and Three to slow down. When he got no response, he double-timed forward, yelling like a crazy man, “Slow down, slow down, there’s rounds on the way!”

If the lead elements had been about ten seconds deeper into the ville when the salvo landed, they would have been caught in the splash. As it was, the timing had been perfect: The last rounds impacted as the first Marines went through the hedgerow.

Captain Williams caught up with Staff Sergeant Taylor, who was standing on a dike in front of the hedge, and shouted, “We still got artillery comin’ in! Stop your troops!”

“We can’t, we’re already started!” Taylor said.

Williams turned to Gibson. “You can’t let any more artillery come in because we can’t stop!” he shouted.

Williams had noticed an NVA in a spiderhole about fifteen meters to his left as he’d rushed up. He saw the NVA only out of the corner of his eye and, considering everything else, it really didn’t register—until a Chicom grenade suddenly exploded behind him. The blast was like a hard kick in the ass, and it sent him sprawling. By the time Williams regained his senses and thought to unholster his .45, the NVA had reappeared. He was holding up the overhead cover to his spider-hole in one hand and looking right at Williams. He had recognized this shouting, gesticulating Marine as a leader, and he pulled the string on another grenade. The NVA flicked the Chicom at Williams, then disappeared back into his covered hole.

The top-heavy, stick-handled grenade bounced toward Williams as if in slow motion. It was taking so long that he knew it would explode just as it rolled to within lethal range. The grenade stopped. It was a dud. By then Williams was in a two-handed prone position with his .45 pistol aimed at the spider-hole. When the NVA popped back up, presumably with a third grenade, the captain began squeezing off rounds. The enemy soldier dropped, apparently hit. Williams couldn’t tell for sure, but at least there were no more Chicoms.

Williams realized then that he’d been hit by the first grenade—a single, deep fragment wound in his left buttock. It was bleeding badly and the pain was starting, but he knew he had lucked out. An American grenade would have blown off my whole leg, he thought.2

Others had also been hit by the grenade, including Staff Sergeant Taylor. His flak jacket was torn up badly, his helmet cover was nicked, and he had several fragments in his left thigh. Taylor was a tall, soft-spoken, twenty-nine-year-old country boy who had been a Marine since dropping out of high school at seventeen. His people were coal miners from Madison ville, Kentucky. He was on his second infantry tour in Vietnam and operated with a calm expertise.

Lieutenant Prescott, the exec, took command and led the well-trained Hotel Company Marines past their flattened leaders to press the attack. Williams was feeling quite alone and very helpless as he lay near Taylor, when to his horror he saw a bypassed NVA who had emerged from a spiderhole. The man was about twenty-five meters away, jogging purposefully through the dissipating smoke screen. He looked right at Williams and Taylor. It would have been easy for him to swing his AK-47 around and blow them away without a thought. Williams tensed. He knew that this was it. But the NVA never fired; he just kept moving. Williams turned to the Navy corps-man who had been bandaging them and told him to find an M16 and organize some security.

They were joined shortly by LCpl. Dale R. Barnes, who had moved up from the exec’s former position at the fording site. Barnes had carried Captain Williams’s radio for five and a half months, and he ran full tilt across the paddies with several Marines from the reserve platoon as soon as he heard his skipper was down. They had not been ordered forward, but knew they would be needed. Barnes knelt beside Williams, who told him that they had wounded in the hedgerow. Barnes drew his .45 and started forward on all fours. A single shot cracked over his head from the hedge—stray or targeted, friendly or enemy, he did not-know—and he hit the deck and crawled on in as fast as he could. The first Marine he found was also lying prone. The man had been wounded in the arm and was terrified that if he moved he would be hit again.

“Everything is clear,” Barnes shouted. He didn’t really believe it, but he wanted to get the man up and out of there. He braced the man against him with his arm around his shoulder, and hustled back to the captain. Barnes went back in, hoisted an unconscious, wounded Marine on his back, and had just about cleared the hedgerow when he collapsed from heat exhaustion.

Meanwhile, Captain Williams instructed the corpsman to find their gunny and bring him forward. The corpsman ran back alone, and reported simply that the gunny was still at the fording site with the mortar section. Williams was perplexed: “Is he hurt?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, what’s he doing?”

“He’s hiding in a hole, sir.”

Son of a bitch, Williams thought. It seemed that every time the fighting started, the gunny would disappear, then reappear afterward. The gunny was on his second tour in Vietnam and was most unhappy to be back. Fawning and obsequious to officers, he was forever finding reasons to go back to the ship.

“You go back there and you get that gunny up here,” Williams shouted to the corpsman. “And you tell him that’s an order; I want him up here now! Get him up here even if you have to do it at gunpoint!”

The gunny finally appeared, ashen faced and trembling. Williams told him to make sure that the NVA he’d shot at was really dead. The gunny’s pistol didn’t work, so he borrowed Taylor’s, fired a few rounds at the spiderhole, and handed back the pistol. There was no response from the spiderhole. Williams told one of the radiomen to go check it out, and to bring back the dead NVA’s gold-starred belt buckle if he could. He wanted it as a souvenir.

As the radioman approached the spiderhole, an NVA suddenly jumped up. Perhaps Williams had only wounded the man, or perhaps it was a different enemy soldier. Either way, the man took off in a panicked run as the radioman hastily opened up with his M16. He missed, and Williams bellowed, “Gunny, get that damn gook—you let him get away!”

“I’m not running after him!” the gunny shouted back.

“Goddamnit, I told you to get that gook, and you’re going to get him!” But the gunny still didn’t budge. Williams finally told him, “You get out there and provide some security for us or you’re a dead man!” The gunny reluctantly got back up, which was lucky for him. “I’d have shot him. There’s no question in my mind,” Williams said later. “The adrenaline was pumping; it was a life-or-death situation for all of us, and I wasn’t in any frame of mind to fool around.”

While things bogged down temporarily on Hotel Three’s side, Staff Sergeant Ward kept things moving fast on Hotel Two’s flank. That was not surprising, for the profane, loud, and forceful Ward was an absolute madman in combat. He was a tough guy from New York who had dropped out of high school at sixteen to join up. He used forged permission papers and ID to fool the recruiters. Ward went on to fight in Korea, and was on his second tour in Vietnam.

The wiry, tattooed, abrasive redhead sported a crew cut and always wore a red bandanna around his neck. He carried a shotgun, pistol, eight grenades, a hatchet, several knives, and an entrenching tool. His troops called him Sergeant Knife. He was thirty-four, and a real character. He was also a hard old pro. Ward had left his platoon sergeant back with the mortar section because the man was due to rotate in two days. As Hotel Two charged into Dong Huan, the squad leader on the left flank, Sgt. Robert J. Enedy, went down with a blood-pumping belly wound. Enedy was a popular, respected Marine, and when he went down his men began diving for cover. Ward pivoted his other two squads to bear down on the NVA to their left, and had just gotten his people moving again when a Chicom potato-masher landed right in front of him. He tried to kick it away, but missed. The explosion peppered his face and jaw with metal fragments, knocking him down.

“Sergeant Ward’s hit!” someone screamed.

Realizing that morale was flagging all around him, Ward jumped back up, pissed off and in pain, shouting, “comin’ let’s go!”

Staff Sergeant Ward ran to the NVA position that was holding them up. There were dead NVA in it—and a couple of live ones. Fucking pricks! he thought as he emptied his shotgun into the slit trench. He put the twelve-gauge down and threw hand grenades at the next trench full of NVA. He suddenly glimpsed an NVA out of the corner of his eye. The man was leaning around the corner of a shattered concrete house. Ward turned and saw another Chicom coming at him. He reached for his shotgun before rolling out of the way, but the grenade went off, blowing the weapon out of his hands, and his diver’s watch with the jungle band and compass off his wrist. It also stung Ward’s left hand with shell fragments and slammed him down so hard that his head was spinning and his eyes wouldn’t focus.

Ward tried to stand, but couldn’t. After the platoon corpsman bandaged his hand, Ward said, “Slap me in the face!” That seemed to set his equilibrium right. Ward stood and un-holstered his .45, but he couldn’t chamber a round one-handed. He gave the pistol to his radioman and told him to pull the slide back. The Marine did so and handed the weapon back as Ward, moving forward again, bellowed amid the din: “comin’ let’s go, Second Platoon.…”3

The north-to-south plunge through the approximately three hundred meters of Dong Huan’s hedges, tree lines, houses, and drainage ditches was a madhouse of some fifteen minutes’ duration. Lieutenant Prescott brought up the reserve platoon, Hotel One, to support Hotel Three. In short order, the platoon commander, Lieutenant Boyle, picked up shell splinters in the arm, and Staff Sergeant Kelleher was hit badly enough to qualify for a medevac. One of their men, LCpl. Robert A. McPherson, was killed. Hotel Company’s charge-Charge-CHARGE maneuver had bypassed entrenched NVA pockets, which had to be methodically reduced by light antitank weapons (LAWs) and M79s as Lieutenant Prescott turned the show around to consolidate what they had. This took a good hour or so. The Marines killed every NVA who did not run or hide well. They took no prisoners. The company was credited with thirty confirmed kills. It also captured the recoilless rifle that had started the donnybrook.

Sergeant Joe N. Jones, a huge black man and second-tour professional, was the platoon sergeant of Hotel Three. Jones took command when Taylor was wounded; he described the action as follows when interviewed three weeks later by the division historical section:

We were in high spirits and seeing dead gooks all over the area. I guess that helped the Marines to continue on through the assault. Of course we had a lot of people pushing. I myself and all my squad leaders and team leaders and everybody else was pushing as hard as they could. We assaulted through the ville, and we got snipers firing, and we had to go back in and, goddamn, there was dead gooks all over the place. Wounded Marines was all over the place. Everybody was all mixed up then; different squads from different platoons was all over the damn ville.

“It was so fucking confusing” was how Staff Sergeant Ward put it. So much so that just before Lieutenant Prescott gave the word to U-turn and mop up, he and Lieutenant Gibson, the FO, actually got ahead of their assault line. At that point, an NVA wearing a bush hat and light green fatigues popped up about twenty feet away. He disappeared back into the ville’s overgrown vegetation when Prescott started firing his .45 at him. He was the only live NVA that Prescott saw.

The village gave way to open paddies leading south to An Lac and west to Dai Do, where Foxtrot was engaged in a furious firefight of its own. When Prescott reached the edge of the ville, not knowing what was waiting for them out there, he told his group to back up.

Lieutenant Gibson, who was only three feet behind Prescott, suddenly dropped as they turned back. He had been shot in the forehead, presumably by an NVA sniper who saw his radioman beside him and figured he was an officer. Gibson had been in Vietnam just ten days.

Lieutenant Prescott radioed Williams that they had secured the recoilless rifle, then requested permission to pull back and consolidate. Hotel Company set up a tight 180 against the tributary running past Dong Huan where die footbridge connected them with Bac Vong. “Lieutenant Prescott really had a head on his shoulders in putting the unit back together, and calming everybody down,” recalled radioman Barnes of his new company commander. At the creekside medevac point, Prescott was surrounded by bedlam. On one side of him was a crying, nearly hysterical corpsman who couldn’t believe that his best friend, Bucky McPherson, was dead. On the other side another corpsman screamed that Sergeant Enedy was gray faced from loss of blood and that he was holding in his intestines as they slipped through his gut wound.

“We gotta get him outta here, Lieutenant!” the corpsman shouted. “We gotta get him out—he’s dying, he’s dying!”

“Put him on the ground,” Prescott answered. “Hold him. We’re doing what we can, we’re trying to get medevacs in.”

No helicopters could land. The NVA had begun lobbing sporadic artillery fire into the area, and there was a near-constant rain of USMC artillery in support of Foxtrot Company in Dai Do. Prescott had to rely instead on the battalion’s fourteen-foot fire-team assault boats, better known as skimmers, which were made of fiberglass and had thirty-five-horsepower outboard motors. At about 1530, several of them came upriver from the BLT CP to shuttle back Hotel’s thirty or so wounded, and to bring forward wooden, rope-handled boxes of ammunition and grenades.

Meanwhile, amid this hurry-hurry-hurry, life-and-death scene at the medevac point, Lieutenant Prescott was stunned to see Colonel Hull, the 3d Marines CO, approaching with his operations officer, sergeant major, and radioman. Fire Raider 6, as Hull was known on the radio, was a real Old Corps warrior. He had taken a skimmer of his own straight from Camp Kistler to Dong Huan. The colonel walked up to Prescott and began questioning him about the fight. Prescott was too busy to answer. “Excuse me, but I don’t have time for this, sir,” he told the colonel. “I got other things to do.”

Lieutenant Prescott, always an irreverent sort, operated under the philosophy of What are they going to do? Shave my head and send me to Vietnam? Major Murphy, the regimental S3, didn’t appreciate Prescott’s offhand dismissal, and glared at him. “Lieutenant, do you know who you’re talking to?” Murphy asked.

“Major, I don’t care who I’m talking to right now. I got a company to run here—you’ll have to excuse me.”

Colonel Hull, who was squat, gray haired, and bulldog faced, stepped between them. “That’s all right, son,” he said, “you just go ahead and do your job. Where can we help?”

“You can help me get these wounded out,” Prescott replied. With that, Hull and Murphy picked up a wounded Marine by his arms and legs and hustled him down to a skimmer.

Captain Williams was loaded into a skimmer, too. Williams, crammed in with five or six other wounded Marines for the top-speed, fifteen-minute ride to Mai Xa Chanh West, later wrote, “the bottom of the boat was completely covered with blood to the depth of several inches in some places. I remember it sloshing around in the boat as we sped across the water. I remember a discarded canteen actually floating in blood.”

The flat-bottomed skimmers brought the casualties to the beach at Mai Xa Chanh West. There, the BLT’s two Navy surgeons and several corpsmen determined their priority for evacuation—routine, priority, or emergency—by the Sea Horses of HMM-362, which were making round-robin flights between the beach and the USS Iwo Jima. The helicopters were lowered one at a time by elevator to the below-deck hangar, where they were met by corpsmen who conducted a second triage, then carried the casualties’ litters to the ship’s below-deck surgery. Each chopper was announced over the ship’s public address system with a chilling monotone: “Medevacs inbound.…Medevacs inbound.…”

Second Lieutenant Bayard V. “Vic” Taylor, the exec of H BLT 2/4, was filled with helpless rage as he began recognizing the faces of men from his company among the casualties. Taylor had recently given up Hotel One to replace Prescott, who was supposed to move to the S3 shop in a couple of days. Taylor had made an admin run to the Iwo Jima that morning to pick up the company payroll. He was a real field Marine and he thought he should have been out there, but all he could do at the moment was walk over to where the KIAs had been unloaded. They were laid out of the way to one side of the hangar, and Taylor and their tough little company first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Clifford Martin, knelt beside each poncho-wrapped body to formally identify them. There were three from Dong Huan.

Second Lieutenant Gibson, the twenty-two-year-old FO from Radford, Virginia, had been a short, stocky, muscular, and very bright young man with a dark mustache. He had been polite, quiet, and unassuming—like most second lieutenants joining a battle-seasoned outfit. He had gotten married about a month before shipping out for Vietnam.

Sergeant Enedy, also twenty-two, of San Diego, California, had been alive when they put him in the skimmer, but he died en route to the ship. He’d been a short, dumpy, humorous little guy, perpetually unshaven, with dark blond hair and a mustache. He’d also been a tough field Marine, and the squad he’d honchoed through countless patrols and firefights took his death hard.

Lance Corporal McPherson, a nineteen-year-old native of Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania, had been a lean, handsome, talkative kid from a single-parent home. He’d been the 3.5-inch rocket squad leader in Lieutenant Taylor’s old platoon, and the cord was pulling tight in Taylor’s gut as he folded back Bucky McPherson’s poncho shroud. Only four days earlier McPherson had told him that he kind of liked this Marine Corps and that after he got out, he wanted to go to college and come back as an officer. McPherson had been shot up badly and the sun had started to turn him black. The only way Taylor could positively identify him was by his USMC bulldog tattoo.

“Medevacs inbound.…Medevacs inbound.…”

Lieutenant Taylor saw Captain Williams in the next load. The skipper, lying on a stretcher and waiting his turn on the hangar deck, was arguing with the corpsman kneeling beside him. Per standard operating procedure (SOP), the sailor wanted to put Williams’s weapon, ammo, and gear on the growing pile off to one side of the hangar bay. The problem was that although the field corpsmen were trustworthy, their shipboard, noncombat counterparts had a reputation for looting gear and personal items from the anonymous piles of casualty discards.

So, his adrenaline still pumping, Williams shouted, “You’re not taking my forty-five!”

“Sir, I’ve got to take your forty-five.”

“Like hell! I’ll turn my forty-five over to a Marine—I’m not going to give it to any fucking Navy man in the rear!”

First Sergeant Martin waved the corpsman away and took the pistol from Williams. The captain, still energized, shouted to Taylor and Martin from his stretcher about how the company had attacked across four hundred meters of open ground and annihilated the enemy dug in before them. “Boy, you should have been there, you should have been there! They weren’t going to let anything stand in their way!”

1. At this point, Capt. G.W. Smith, USN, the TF Clearwater commander, closed the Bo Dieu River to supply traffic until the Marines could clear the banks.

2. Captain Williams was awarded a second Silver Star and the Purple Heart for his actions and wound at Dong Huan. His first Silver Star had been for Vinh Quan Thuong. He later received the Bronze Star Medal with Combat V (BSMv) as an end-of-tour award.

3. Staff Sergeant Ward was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for Dong Huan. He picked up his second Purple Heart during the subsequent battle for Nhi Ha (25 May 1968), and finished his tour on Okinawa, where, true to his crazy, alcohol-fueled ways he was court-martialed for fistfighting. His name was removed from the gunnery sergeant list, and he was never promoted.

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